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Sunday, October 27, 2019
Scripture: Joshua 22:4-5 & Philippians 3:7-16
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

I’m beginning to think Paul was a runner. Speaking of running, I love the responses I get when I tell people I’ve run a marathon. “Wow that’s so great!” “26.2 miles? Amazing!” But inevitably the question of when did I run the marathon comes up. That’s when it comes to light that I ran a marathon…22 years ago. In light of that new information that accomplishment becomes less impressive. Finishing a marathon: impressive. Finishing it 22 years ago: it’s less impressive

In a similar manner Paul’s spiritual resume is impressive. In light of new information that is the good news of Jesus Christ, Paul’s spiritual resume, while still impressive, becomes less so.

Troy touched on this last week about all of Paul’s amazing accomplishments. He was what every committed Jew admired and aspired to be: An expert on the Law. Pious. As a Pharisee he not only had deep understanding of the Old Testament he had unwavering convictions about who God is and was willing to fight for those convictions. He was someone who walked the talk when it came to his belief in God.

All that he and other Jewish converts believed about God, however imploded when they came to know Jesus Christ.  Jesus changed everything. He changed all that they understood about God.

This of course changed Paul’s understanding of the Law. Not that the Law itself was bad/rubbish. It was given by God after all and this remains true.

At the first church I served at in New Jersey I was invited to speak at one of the local high school as the representative of all “Protestants.” Yep. No pressure. The students did not hold back with their questions. Most of them had a bad impression of church and Christians in general. One student asked: “Why are Christians so fixated on rules? Like the 10 commandments?” The Ten Commandments were boundaries to help people live in such a way that kept them connected to God and when they were better connected to God they were better connected with one another.

So again the Law in itself is not bad. Paul is of course all for people becoming more deeply connected to God. What Paul has discovered, however, is that human effort alone is not enough to keep us connected to God. Even when we have specific boundaries such as the Law to help us to do this.

For Paul the trust and confidence in himself to follow the law is what he refers to as rubbish.

What has changed for Paul is that while all of his accomplishments in terms of his knowledge and execution of the Law are indeed important and impressive, even these things, which are good things, are “garbage” compared to knowing Jesus Christ.

You hear testimonies about people giving up things that are worthless to begin with such as toxic relationships or any sort of destructive behavior in the name of Jesus Christ, because it’s clear such things are garbage because of the damage they do in a person’s life.

But for Paul he’s willing to count that which is of great value as losses, compared to what we gain from knowing Jesus Christ.

One reason I don’t think I’ve run another marathon is that I hate the treadmill. I need visual cues that I’m getting somewhere. Especially when I’m hurting and want to stop. I need that mental game of “if you make it to that tree, you can make it to that crosswalk and if you can do that you’ll be done soon!” But on the treadmill, You don’t go anywhere. You stay in one place.

For Paul depending on his own efforts to do all that God asks of us through the Law is like running in place. You don’t get anywhere. The Law shows us what we aren’t able to do. The Law itself can’t heal what the Law exposes all that is broken within us.

In Christ we can stop spinning our wheels. Jesus does for us what we can’t. In our inability to perfectly obey God, Jesus obeys for us. In our failed efforts to love our neighbor at all times or even ourselves, Jesus loves on our behalf. In our failed attempts to be who God calls us to be as outlined in the Law, Jesus succeeds. When we find ourselves not being able to get anywhere, we see that Jesus has already won the race for us.

Christian Smith is a sociologist at Notre Dame. In his book “Soul Searching” he coins the dominant understanding of God among younger Americans as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” Under this belief system, God blesses those who live moral and decent lives with a acceptance into heaven (moralistic), the goal of life is not sacrifice or selflessness, but to be happy and feel good about yourself (therapeutic). And finally while God is present in the world God does involve himself in our lives (deism). Under this belief system it ultimately puts a person in control of their salvation, happiness and lives. One doesn’t necessarily need God to be a kind and moral person or to have good self esteem.

It’s no wonder young people aren’t interested in church. If this is what they believe about God, then God can’t do for them what they can readily do themselves. And Therapeutic Moralistic Deism doesn’t run rampant in just younger generations, but no matter what our age we’re all in danger of making ourselves the center of our faith when it needs to be Jesus Christ. The idea that we are all that’s needed and we don’t need Jesus. It’s this view of God and of ourselves that Paul refers to as trash. The word for “trash” in Greek can actually be translated to something more offensive, but I can’t say that word in church, but I really want to, because the it perfectly describes the false notion that we don’t need Jesus Christ.

It’s why people who buy into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism sooner or later give up on God. Because it’s not enough. It’s not enough because Jesus Christ is no where to be found and He is what makes all the difference. In Jesus we are first faced with the harsh reality that we ourselves are inadequate to be who God made us and wants us to be, but also in Jesus we know we are so valuable to God that he did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

In Colossians Paul writes that in Jesus Christ we are held together. Because in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ can we be connected to God. Not because of anything we did or achieved, but all because of what Jesus did for us. Everything else pales in comparison.

On the flip side we can’t say: “Well in Jesus I’m forgiven, made whole and am forever connected to God so woo hoo I can do whatever I want and how I treat others doesn’t matter!” That’s not what Paul is saying. After coming to know Christ we see that Paul wants to know him even better. So much so he wants to identify with Jesus in his sufferings, death and finally resurrection. Paul says not that he’s ever able to fully attain this goal, but nevertheless he stays in the race of getting to know Jesus Christ even better. And staying in this race involves giving up all that he once put his trust and confidence in so that he could trust Jesus even more. He gives up his comfortable upper class lifestyle as a religious elite to become a part time tent maker so he can make just enough money to support himself a missionary. To truly know Christ results in change and transformation in our lives.

Not that transformation necessarily means giving it all up in order to do full time ministry although it could be. But it’s probably more likely that God is asking you to reevaluate whatever it is that you’re putting all your trust in so that you are able to trust in Jesus more. And to grapple with the notion of why we put more trust and confidence in ourselves or others, than we do in Jesus? What is it about Jesus that we can’t fully believe that keeps us from fully trusting in him?

I think we can’t quite get over the idea that we don’t have to prove ourselves to God that God has already made up his mind that we’re worth what Jesus did on our behalf. I mean we prove ourselves in every other area of our lives. We work hard to prove we’re valuable and indispensable at work. We work hard to make ourselves appear that we have it all together to gain approval from others. We teach our kids they need to work hard to prove their worth in the classroom or on the field. Again it’s not that our hard work or accomplishments are bad in and of themselves. It’s when we put our entire self worth into those things rather than in who Jesus says we are it’s then that we get into trouble. Because sooner or later those things we put all of our trust in will fail us or we will fail them.

Derek Redmond proved his status as a decorated athlete in track and field. In 1992 at the Barcelona Summer Olympics he had the honor of representing his country, Great Britain and was favored to join the final heat for gold in the 400 m race. But in the semi finals things did not go as he had hoped. Let’s watch that video.

Because Derek had assistance from his father, Jim, to cross the finish line he was automatically disqualified. If you look at the official results of that race you’ll find next to Derek Redmond’s name the notation: “Did not Finish.”

It’s in our nature to believe we can run the race on our own. We try to prove our self worth by depending on our sheer strength and will to finish the race to prove to others and even God himself that we are worthy. In Jesus Christ we see that not only has the race been finished for us, but when we find ourselves unable to run, Christ carries us across the finish line. And he does so time and time again.